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Professor Donald Kagan to receive second "Edmund Burke Award"

by Eric C. Simpson

Posted: Apr 23, 2014 01:07 PM


NEW YORK, April 23, 2014—Professor Donald Kagan, Sterling Professor Emeritus of Classics at Yale University, will receive the second Edmund Burke Award for Service to Culture and Society at The New Criterion’s gala tonight in New York City. The event benefits The New Criterion, an influential monthly review of the arts and intellectual life, and the award, which was first presented to Dr. Henry Kissinger in 2012, gives homage to the inspiration provided by Edmund Burke, the eighteenth-century political philosopher.

Professor Kagan will be the guest of honor and will be delivering remarks on "Artists and Politics."

"In his tenure as a teacher and scholar at Yale, his vigorous occupancy of the Deanship of Yale College, and his long career as a public intellectual, Donald Kagan has embodied the true and robust liberalism of Edmund Burke, that liberalism which is essentially conservative of the achievements of civilization in the face of its many enemies an detractors”, remarked Roger Kimball, the Editor and Publisher of The New Criterion. "He has stood as a beacon of sanity in the tenebrous swamp of a spurious and intellectually sophomoric political correctness . The Editors of The New Criterion are as honored as they are delighted that Donald Kagan is the second recipient of the magazine's Edmund Burke Award for Service to Culture and Society."

About The New Criterion

The New Criterion ( is a New York-based monthly literary magazine and journal of artistic and cultural criticism, edited by Roger Kimball. It was founded in 1982 by Hilton Kramer, former art critic for The New York Times who passed away in March 2012, and Samuel Lipman, a pianist and music critic. The New Criterion draws inspiration and its name from The Criterion, a British literary magazine edited by T. S. Eliot from 1922 to 1939. For over three decades, it has featured criticism of poetry, theatre, art, music, the media, and books from America's leading commentators.

Since its inception, the magazine has been the home to many of the smartest minds in cultural journalism including Professor Kagan, Dr. Henry Kissinger, Mark Steyn, Andrew Roberts, Theodore Dalrymple, Joseph Epstein, Denis Donoghue, William F. Buckley Jr., Andrew C. McCarthy, and Charles Murray.

The Times Literary Supplement has said "The New Criterion is probably more consistently worth reading than any other magazine in English." The Wall Street Journal has said "it operates as a refuge for a civilizing element in short supply in contemporary America: honest criticism" and calls The New Criterion "the best art magazine and provocative force in other cultural areas."

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A Body Blow to Racial Discrimination

by Roger Kimball | from PJ Media

Posted: Apr 23, 2014 12:52 AM

Yes, you read it here: the Supreme Court of the United  States, in a 6-2 decision (Elena Kagan took no part in the case), upheld Michigan’s ban on racial discrimination in college admissions, overturning a lower court’s intervention to reverse a 2006 referendum in which Michigan voters decisively rejected the invidious process. You’ll be reading [...]

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Carpeaux, public and private

by Eric Gibson

Posted: Apr 22, 2014 09:46 AM

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, Ugolino and His Sons, 1865–67; Saint-Béat marble, H. 77 3/4 x W. 59 x D. 43 1/2 in. (197.5 x 149.9 x 110.5 cm); The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Josephine Bay Paul and C. Michael Paul Foundation Inc. Gift, Charles Ulrick and Josephine Bay Foundation Inc. Gift, and Fletcher Fund, 1967

Anyone studying art history in the 1960s and 1970s had it made clear to them in books, in articles, and in the classroom that the 300 years between the death of Michelangelo and the emergence of Rodin constituted a dark age as far as sculpture was concerned. If you were lucky, you would find a writer or professor willing to concede that that Bernini fellow might be worth a brief glance or two, but this was by no means assured. And the closer you got to the advent of modernism the darker the age became, so that the French sculptors of the nineteenth century were portrayed as green-eyed goblins worthy of some Gothic Last Judgment painting.

Fortunately, tastes have changed in the intervening decades, opening our eyes to hitherto maligned or undervalued talents and allowing us to perceive the essential continuity of the French sculptural tradition from the seventeenth century to the twentieth, Rodin’s radical innovations notwithstanding. The latest artist to get his due is Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827–75), currently the subject of a magnificent retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the first there in nearly forty years. The show, jointly curated by the Met’s James David Draper and Edouard Papet of the Musée d’Orsay (where the show travels after closing at the Met on May 26), consists of some 160 works—finished and preparatory sculptures, as well as drawings and paintings. A group of five self-portraits, the last dating from shortly before his death from cancer at the age of forty-eight, forms a poignant coda to the exhibition.

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, Self-portrait, 1865; Red and brown chalk heightened with white on tan paper; 18 ¼ x 11 7/8 in. (46.4 x 30.2 cm) Private collection, New York

It’s commonplace to declare that exhibitions of this kind constitute “a revelation,” but in this case the word aptly applies, both as a descriptive term and accolade. To the extent that Carpeaux is known at all, it is primarily, to Met audiences, for the life-size marble Ugolino and His Sons (1865–67), long part of its permanent collection, and, to the wider world, for The Dance (1869), the bacchanalian group on the exterior of Charles Garnier’s Paris Opera building. But this show reveals that there was far more to Carpeaux than that, so much so that it seems almost unfair to group his many facets together under one roof. One comes away feeling the only way to do justice to the man would be in three separate exhibitions: one devoted to his public commissions, one to his portraits, and one to his terracotta sketches.

Carpeaux was not an artistic innovator, but the virtue of such figures is that they can reveal more about the swirling aesthetic currents in a period of transition than those lightning-in-a-bottle revolutionaries who, almost by definition, stand apart from their time. Such was the case with Carpeaux, whose work reflects both a waning Romanticism and nascent naturalism. Though he had strong allegiances to the past—in many ways he was the heir of Jean-Antoine Houdon in portraiture—he was enough of an independent spirit to serve as a precursor of Rodin, both in his free approach to sources and influences and in the way he reconceived the public monument. Thirty years before the public outcry precipitated by Rodin’s Monument to Balzac, Carpeaux found himself embroiled in similar scandal over The Dance, which was deemed obscene and splashed with ink by an angry protestor two weeks later after its unveiling.

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, Sketch for The Dance, 1865-1866; Plaster, 21 ½ x 13 3/8 x 11 ¾ in (420x 298x145 cm); Musée d'Orsay © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay), Photograph by Patrice Schmidt

Carpeaux’s independence manifested itself almost from the beginning. Ugolino and His Sons, a project he began in 1857 and that took him six years to bring to fruition, was created to fulfill one of his requirements as a Prix de Rome student. Carpeaux took a subject from Dante—the tyrant of Pisa, Count Ugolino della Gherardesca, who was deposed by Archbishop Ubaldino, walled up in a dungeon with his two sons and grandsons, and, after their deaths, eventually driven to cannibalism. In choosing Dante, Carpeaux departed from the practice of picking a subject from classical antiquity or the Bible; in executing the group he rejected a strictly classicizing approach, his sources instead ranging across the spectrum from past to present, from the Belvedere Torso and the Laocoön, to Michelangelo and Bernini, to Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa.

In what amounts to a show-within-a-show, the Met’s sculpture is installed at the center of a gallery surrounded by preparatory drawings and terracotta sketches that allow us to trace the evolution of Carpeaux’s thinking, from the project’s first adumbration as a relief through the final, densely composed, five-figure grouping. Remarkable in the final sculpture is both Carpeaux’s seamless blending of these varied influences, and his creative orchestration of the emotional content of the sculpture. Our eye is led upward from the dead son languishing by Ugolino’s feet to the elder son grasping his father’s legs and looking in desperation into his face, to Ugolino himself. But here Carpeaux upends our expectation of a Laocoön-like climax. Instead of wide-eyed, open-mouthed despair, Ugolino’s expression is that of a man so inwardly absorbed by the realization of what has become of him and those he loves as to be all but oblivious to his surroundings, his anguished interior state contrasting powerfully with the overt emotionalism of the figures around him. Carpeaux even adds a grace note—if you can call it that—and has Ugolino’s toes intertwining with each other. It’s a gesture that vividly conveys the all-consuming nature of his torment, yet one which, as far as I know, is impossible in nature.

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, Ugolino and His Sons (detail), 1865–67; Saint-Béat marble, H. 77 3/4 x W. 59 x D. 43 1/2 in. (197.5 x 149.9 x 110.5 cm); The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Josephine Bay Paul and C. Michael Paul Foundation Inc. Gift, Charles Ulrick and Josephine Bay Foundation Inc. Gift, and Fletcher Fund, 1967

In the matter of Carpeaux’s portraits, which occupy the next two galleries in the show, one wants to say, “Who knew?”—not just that he did so many so well, but that this master of public oratory in sculpture could come to grips with his fellow man in such intimate, revealing ways. Carpeaux’s portraits possess the psychological immediacy of Houdon’s combined with a depth of insight worthy of a Sigmund Freud. He sculpted both the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, and in his handling of the former we can see the old aesthetic order under pressure from the new. In French portrait busts from the seventeenth century onward, artists had to balance their depiction of their subjects’ coiffure, dress, and personal adornments—with all the opportunities these offered for sculptural tours de force—with the work’s portrait function, the sense of the individual we get from the treatment of the head and face. With some artists the personality leaps out at you while with others it is all but upstaged by the sculptor’s fascination with ribbons, bows, brooches, and brocades. But one way or another, the artists invariably fused these competing elements into a convincing overall unity.

Not so in Carpeaux’s Marquise de La Valette (1861), which reveals a kind of disjunction: On the one hand we have the lavish, even buoyant rendering of duchess’s finery—her elaborate hairdo with its flowers and ribbons, her six strands of pearls, and the lace and other richly-textured stuffs of her dress, all possessed of a kind of late-Rococo exuberance and insouciance. On the other we have the marquise’s countenance, in which is written, with an unsparing naturalism, not only the toll taken by her advancing years but an expression of melancholy inwardness. Each aspect seems to belong to a different artistic universe. Carpeaux fared better with the members of the bourgeoisie, delicately and humanely getting across both individual identity and social station, as he does unforgettably in the twin busts of the shop owners-turned-philanthropists Pierre-Alfred and Madame Chardon-Lagache.

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, Amélie de Montfort in Wedding Attire, 1869; Plaster, 26 5/8 x 18 3/8 x 11 ½ in. (67.5 x 46.6 x 29.3 cm); Musée d’Orsay © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay), Photograph by Patrice Schmidt

Portraits also serve as our point of entry into the section on another of Carpeaux’s masterpieces, the Fountain of the Observatory (1868–72). Located in Paris’s Luxembourg Gardens, it consists of four figures symbolizing Europe, Asia, Africa, and America holding aloft a celestial sphere. They stand on a pedestal in the center of a wide, low basin surrounded by rearing horses and spouting turtles. Like that of The Dance, the full-scale plaster model—which is now in the Musée d’Orsay—could not travel, so in the main this portion of the exhibition consists of small-scale sketches in plaster and terracotta. But it also features portrait busts related to the fountain project, the plaster Chinese Man (1872), and the marble Woman of African Descent (1868). They give us direct access to one of Carpeaux’s central achievements in the fountain: his honest and humane treatment of these “exotic” subjects, something more difficult to see in the finished monument owing to its size and the circumstances of its placement. They are naturalistic renderings true to their subjects’ appearance yet devoid of any trace of “Orientalist” stereotyping or caricature. The face of the Chinese Man is softly and sensitively modeled, and he is shown staring intently off to one side as if he is sizing up something has just caught his attention. Similarly Woman of African Descent, bound with ropes and with the inscription “Pourquoi Naître Esclave” (“Why be born a slave”) on the socle, turns to look up and back, as if to confront her captor from a kneeling position, the rugged beauty of her wide, open face reflecting a mix of pain, determination, and fearless defiance.

One wonders if this figure’s full-scale counterpart on the fountain, Africa, influenced Augustus Saint-Gaudens when he came to depict the black members of the 54th Massachusetts regiment in his Robert Gould Shaw Memorial in Boston starting in the 1880s. The Shaw Memorial was one of the first works of American art to break with the Sambo stereotype, instead depicting blacks as flesh-and-blood human beings. Yet there were no precedents in American art for this sort of treatment other than John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark (1778), which entered the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in the late 1880s. Carpeaux’s fountain hadn’t been completed when Saint-Gaudens was studying in Paris just prior to the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. But it was in place when he returned for six months in June 1877, and both his living quarters and, to a lesser extent, his studio were a stone’s throw from the fountain. His biographer Burke Wilkinson writes that “Each morning Saint-Gaudens walked the pleasant mile from 3 Rue Herschel to his studio at 49 Rue Notre Dame des Champs. . . . At the place where the Avenue joins the Boulevard Saint-Michel, he would often pause to admire the Observatory Fountain. . . . He particularly liked the four sinuous nudes by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux that form the centerpiece and crown of the fountain.” It’s hard to imagine Carpeaux was not on his mind a decade later as he undertook the Shaw.

Two constants run through Carpeaux’s varied output. The first is that in all his sketches, be they in two dimensions or three, he has an unerring eye for the way bodily pose can by itself embody narrative and express intense emotion. No doubt this is the fruit of his close study of Michelangelo in Rome, Florence, and the Louvre. The animal desperation of the protagonist in Ugolino Devouring the Skull of the Archbishop, the contorted central figure in Scene of Childbirth, the limp body of the dead Christ in Pietà, and the thrown-back head in Despair: You don’t need a label to understand what is going on in these works; the images themselves say it all.

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, The Imperial Prince with the Dog Nero, 1865-67; Marble, 55 ¼ x 25 ¾ x 24 ¼ in. (140.2 x 65.4 x 61.5 cm);Musée d’Orsay © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) Photograph by Michel Urtado

The second constant is Carpeaux’s perfect emotional pitch. Ugolino could easily have deteriorated into empty melodrama or exploded into bombast. Similarly, starting with Fisherboy with a Seashell (1861–62) and Girl with a Seashell (1867), there were innumerable opportunities for him to serve up saccharine images in the manner of William-Adolphe Bouguereau and other pompier artists. Yet he never does. Nowhere is this perfect pitch more in evidence than in The Imperial Prince with the Dog Nero (1865–66). The ten-year-old boy stands with his left hand resting on the neck of their hunting dog, which wraps its body against his legs and raises its head to look up at him. It is a touching portrait of mutual affection—devotion, even—that could easily have turned into one of those mawkish Victorian exercises in sentimentality being turned out by Sir Edwin Landseer and other British artists of the time. But all that is held in check by the boy’s distant gaze, his slight air of adolescent self-consciousness mixed with the hieratic detachment appropriate to a member of the imperial household. Carpeaux has caught it all.

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Critic's Notebook for April 21, 2014

by Brian P. Kelly

Posted: Apr 21, 2014 05:32 PM

Image via DC Moore Gallery

Sign up to receive "Critic's Notebook" in your inbox every Monday—it only takes a few seconds and it's completely free! "Critic's Notebook" is a weekly preview of the best to read, see, and hear in culture, compiled by the editors of The New Criterion.

This week: Mary Frank's haunting sculpture, Shakespeare's dictionary, and a new poem from Christian Wiman.

Fiction: Terms & Conditions by Robert Glancy (Bloomsbury): Glancy’s debut novel tells the humorous story of Frank Shaw, a London-based lawyer struggling to recover his life after a serious car accident has left him with amnesia. As his memory slowly returns, there seems to be something off about the world around him—a secret group has popped up within his firm, his wife’s bestselling business book makes him inexplicably angry, a severed finger in a jar fills him with pride. People try to persuade him that his life was fine before the crash, but the more Frank remembers, the more he realizes this wasn’t the case. Confronted by the truth, Frank has to come to terms with the fact that his life was a mess in this quirky story about self-discovery. —BK

Nonfiction: The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language by John H. McWhorter (Oxford): Originally advanced in the 1930s, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis holds that the language we speak directly affects our worldview. This new book from Columbia University linguistics professor John H. McWhorter challenges this view, arguing that language reflects the speaker’s culture, not visa versa. An accessible—if one-sided—overview of an intriguing debate that endures in contemporary linguistics. —BK

Poetry: Shakespeare’s dictionary discovered?: Well, it’s not the lost manuscript of Cardenio, but its quite exciting nonetheless. If these rare-book dealers are correct, they have discovered Shakespeare’s dictionary, which he annotated in his own hand. Adam Gopnik weighs in at The New Yorker, and the booksellers make their case here. —DY

Art: “Rackstraw Downes” at Betty Cuningham Gallery (through May 3): This exhibition, presenting major works by Downes created from 1983 to the present, coincides with the publication of the artist’s Nature and Art are Physical: Writings on Art, 1967–2008. On Thursday, both Downes and John Elderfield, who wrote the book’s introduction, will be at the gallery from 6–8pm for a book signing and reception. Downes is himself a contributor to The New Criterion; his writing for the magazine is available here. —JP

Music: Emerson String Quartet at Lincoln Center (Wednesday): As part of the Lincoln Center Great Performers series, the formidable Emerson String Quartet continues an exploration of the late quartets of Shostakovich, the twentieth century's greatest master of the form. Their program at Alice Tully Hall will pair the thirteenth and fourteenth quartets with the capricious third quartet of Benjamin Britten. —ES

Other: Visions of Mary Frank: screening and discussion at Film Forum (Tuesday): Mary Frank is a sculptor who deserves to be better known. During her long career she studied drawing with Max Beckmann and Hans Hoffmann; her sculpture is largely influenced by her time spent as a dancer, when she took lessons from Martha Graham; her work is owned by the Met, the Smithsonian, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Jewish Museum, the Whitney, and the Yale University Art Gallery, just to name a few; she’s won two Guggenheim fellowships, the Lee Krasner Award, the Joan Mitchell Grant Award, and has been elected to both the American Academy of Arts and letters and the National Academy of Design. This documentary explores the Frank’s impressive career and her often-tumultuous personal life. On Tuesday, the filmmaker John Cohen will have a conversation with Mary Frank at the 8:20 screening. —BK

From the archive: The genius of Wodehouse by Roger Kimball, October 2000: A consideration of the author, occasioned the commencement of the publication of the first uniform series of Wodehouse books.

From our latest issue: More like the stars by Christian Wiman: A spectacular new poem from the award-winning Wiman.

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More on ‘President Asterisk’

by Roger Kimball | from PJ Media

Posted: Apr 21, 2014 04:55 PM

This morning, Instapundit dipped its cup into the growing current of stories about the lies and lawlessness that have characterized the Obama administration.  One story, “Barack Obama and the Politics of Lies,” is from the Washington Examiner and it ought to give anyone, Democrat or Republican,  pause. Citing the President’s recent “victory dance” over the [...]

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Just what Doktor Strauss ordered: a soprano

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: Apr 21, 2014 02:59 PM

Malin Byström in Act II of Arabella; photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

On Wednesday night, the Metropolitan Opera staged Arabella, one of the Strauss-Hofmannsthal works. The music is in the Rosenkavalier vein—but there is some Salome squirminess as well. The Strauss “veins” overlap, don’t they? The story is as screwy as that of any opera buffa, or at least I think so. It’s the kind of story in which a person may mistake the identity of the person with whom he is fornicating.

Oh, opera, du holde Kunst!

The Met’s production is that of 1983 by Otto Schenk. It is a production that looks and feels just like Arabella. Is that sort of production still legal?

An evening of Arabella starts with the Countess and the Fortune Teller—in our case, Catherine Wyn-Rogers and Victoria Livengood. Seldom has there been so much noise on a stage. They were a couple of battle axes, outdoing each other in wobbly shrewishness.

I thought of one of the most famous anecdotes in opera: Strauss calls out to the conductor, “Louder, louder the orchestra, I can still hear die Heink!” (i.e., the formidable mezzo Ernestine Schumann-Heink). You could certainly hear our Countess and Fortune Teller.

It was harder to hear Juliane Banse, the soprano singing Zdenka—or Zdenko, depending on the character’s sex at the moment. You could tell that she was singing intelligently, if not beautifully. And, in her Zdenko guise, she looked amazingly like a boy.

I say “amazingly” because Banse is a quite beautiful woman.

In the role of Matteo was the Italian-German tenor Roberto Saccà. The bio on his website describes him as “one of the best-known and best-loved tenors of our time.” It’s amazing what people say, or allow others to say, in their bios. I think of a phrase from Solzhenitsyn, about our modern Western culture: “the revolting invasion of publicity.”

Saccà sang Matteo much as he sang Walther in Wagner’s Meistersinger at Salzburg last summer: smoothly, lyrically, and with insufficient power. It was hard to hear him through the orchestra, as it was Banse. One thing you can appreciate about Saccà, though, is that he doesn’t bark—he really sings.

Then came our Arabella: Malin Byström, a Swedish soprano. What a rich, big, beautiful carpet of sound. That changed everything—the color of the evening. It rescued it from tedium. Nonetheless, much of her singing had too little sensuousness. In her duet with Banse, the notes were there, but not really the transport.

Making a fine impression was the tenor singing Count Elemer: Brian Jagde, who had aliveness, among other qualities. Genuine vibrancy. Also making a fine impression was the bass-baritone singing Count Waldner—the father of Arabella and Zdenka-Zdenko. That was Martin Winkler, a canny Austrian.

Now to Mandryka: who was the German baritone Michael Volle. I have heard him sing in Salzburg for many years, but I don’t believe I had ever heard him on American shores. Several times, I have written that he reminds me of Beethoven—in his looks. He still does, in a way, but maybe not as much as before.

He is slightly old, perhaps, for the role of Mandryka. But this is opera, so what am I talking about? Also, he sang with heart, in this Act I. That is an old-fashioned expression—singing “with heart”—but it applies. Volle was slightly stiff and stentorian, but his intentions and efforts were inarguable and laudable.

In the pit was Philippe Auguin, the French conductor. He was competent, and so was the Met orchestra. But Act I wasn’t very Viennese, or swirling, or rhapsodic, or Straussian. It was—you know: okay.

I thought, “Oh, great: another night killed by okayness. What am I going to say, in my review? It’ll be as dull as the performance.”

Act II, ladies and gentlemen, was stunning. Magic set in. Was it the performers or was it Strauss? Both, I think: The performers hit their stride, rose to the occasion. Byström sang like a true Arabella, destroying her audience with beauty, understanding, and poise. Volle was destructive too—in that good sense. He was touching as the aristocratic, widowed provincial, smitten by a city girl.

Audrey Luna, as Milli, contributed excellent coloratura ejaculations. The Met orchestra played virtuosically, and it played intensely. The conductor’s hand was sure. This was real Strauss.

Before the curtain rose on Act III, a Met official came out to make an announcement: Saccà was ailing and would be replaced by Garrett Sorenson. Then the orchestra played the prelude to this act—not very sensually, really. Sorenson displayed his slender, handsome tenor, though he struggled on high notes. Banse sang with more beauty than she had shown us in Act I. Volle continued to sing with heart.

But let’s face it: Arabella, like many a Strauss opera, is a soprano vehicle, and the soprano it’s a vehicle for is the Arabella. Byström had total command and knew it. She was almost cocky in her singing, with its control of high pianos and everything else. Her aria of forgiveness was warming, filling.

The orchestra, I’m afraid, could have given us more emotion—more Strauss. And it was not together at the end. Still: We had enjoyed a good night at the opera, and a very, very good Act II. Plus, Malin Byström was, for me, a discovery.

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Samuel Johnson: Lawyer Manqué

by Stephen Miller

Posted: Apr 21, 2014 02:19 PM

According to conventional wisdom, most people would rather be known as a great writer than a great lawyer. Yet one of the most famous English writers regretted that he had not become a lawyer.  I’m referring to Samuel Johnson.  He told James Boswell that he became a writer because “I had not money to study law.”

In his twenties Johnson looked into the possibility of practicing law without a law degree, but he learned that it was impossible to do so. As a result, Boswell says, Johnson was “under the necessity of persevering in that course, into which he had been forced.”

Forty years later, after Johnson had achieved a great deal of fame as a writer, he still thought he should have become a lawyer. In April 1778, six years before Johnson died, he told Boswell: “I ought to have been a lawyer.” Boswell then repeated a remark that a friend of Johnson’s had made: “What a pity it is, Sir, that you did not follow the profession of law. You might have been Lord Chancellor of Great Britain.” Hearing this, Johnson became “much agitated,” and he said to Boswell, “Why will you vex me by suggesting this, when it is too late?”

Boswell was a lawyer who wanted to be a full-time writer, so he was puzzled that Johnson would have preferred to be a lawyer.  In Boswell’s mind, the law was a dreary and tedious profession.

Though Johnson wished he had become a lawyer, he always defended the profession of writing. “No man,” Boswell says, “had a higher notion of the dignity of literature than Johnson, or was more determined in maintaining the respect which he justly considered as due to it.”  Proud of being a freelance writer who managed to eke out a living without an academic appointment or help from a patron, Johnson disliked writers who belittled their profession. Though he despised Voltaire for attacking Christianity, he agreed with Voltaire’s assessment of the playwright William Congreve. In Johnson’s words, Voltaire was disgusted “by the despicable foppery of [Congreve’s] desiring to be considered not as an author but a gentleman.”

Yet Johnson thought it was not a good idea, in general, to become a writer. Writers, he often said, are more likely than other people to be deeply disappointed because their imagination tends to indulge in unrealistic dreams of success: “He that endeavors after fame by writing solicits the regard of a multitude fluctuating in pleasures, or immersed in business, without time for intellectual amusements.”

Johnson, though, didn’t praise the profession of law simply because he thought becoming a writer was foolish—or at least risky. He genuinely enjoyed wrestling with legal matters. He frequently gave Boswell advice about his legal practice. He also wrote about copyright law and about the criminal code; he attacked imprisonment for debt and opposed the death penalty for theft.

In his library, Johnson had at least twenty-five works of jurisprudence. He ghostwrote a number of lectures on jurisprudence for Robert Chambers, the Vinerian Professor of English Law at Oxford. Chambers, whom Johnson had befriended when the former was a law student in London, had been appointed to the Oxford post at the age of twnty-nine. It was a prestigious appointment, but it required Chambers to give sixty annual lectures for two years. Overwhelmed by the task, he sought Johnson’s help, and in the late 1760s Johnson frequently journeyed from London to Oxford to work with Chambers on the lectures, which he eventually gave without acknowledging Johnson’s collaboration.  To get a sense of what Johnson did for Chambers, imagine Edmund Wilson spending roughly six to nine months helping a young professor at Harvard Law School write a book.

How good was Johnson’s legal thinking?  According to the literary critic Pat Rogers, “he had an extensive familiarity with many branches of the law, and had the grasp of detail and tight hold on logic which would have brought him success in practice.”

While he never did practice, what Johnson has to say about the role of a lawyer is still worth noting. Disagreeing with a man who says that an honest lawyer should never take a cause that he thinks is unjust, Johnson replies:

A lawyer has no business with the justice or injustice of the cause which he undertakes, unless his client asks his opinion, and then he is bound to give it honestly. The justice or injustice of the cause is to be decided by the judge. Consider, Sir; What is the purpose of courts of justice? It is, that every man may have his cause fairly tried, by men appointed to try causes. A lawyer is not to tell what he knows to be a lie: He is not to produce what he knows to be a false deed; but he is not to usurp the province of the jury and of the judge, and determine what shall be the effect of evidence,—what shall be the result of legal argument. As it rarely happens that a man is fit to plead his own cause, lawyers are a class of the community, who, by study and experience, have acquired the art and power of arranging evidence, and of applying to the points at issue what the law has settled. A lawyer is to do for his client all that his client might fairly do for himself, if he could. . . .  If lawyers were to undertake no causes till they were sure they were just, a man might be precluded altogether from a trial of his claim, though, were it judicially examined, it might be found a very just claim.

Would Johnson have been a successful lawyer? It is hard to say, but his odd mannerisms—he may have suffered from Tourette’s syndrome—contributed to the failure of the school he opened in 1735. These same mannerisms would have made it difficult for him to attract clients. Even so, he had many friends, so it is possible that he would have been able to build a practice.

This reader is very happy that Johnson’s wishes were thwarted. If he had become a lawyer, it is unlikely that he would have written as much as he did, and we would be all the poorer for it. I, for one, would take Lives of the Poets over the work of a barrister any day.

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More on “President Asterisk”

by Roger Kimball | from PJ Media

Posted: Apr 21, 2014 01:55 PM

This morning, Instapundit dipped its cup into the growing current of stories about the lies and lawlessness that have characterized the Obama administration.  One story, “Barack Obama and the Politics of Lies,” is from the Washington Examiner and it ought to give anyone, Democrat or Republican,  pause. Citing the President’s recent “victory dance” over the [...]

go to PJ Media

Learning can be fun, or history class as a game of hunt-the-Nazi

by James Bowman

Posted: Apr 18, 2014 10:26 AM

In the current issue of The New Criterion I write en passant about the “Common Core” curriculum in history which the educational establishment has been so terrifyingly successful in imposing on America’s school-children. Remarkably, there is no body of knowledge attached to the history standards. History, along with “social studies,” is itself tellingly subsumed under “English language arts” and is to the authors entirely a matter of analyzing and interpreting “texts.” The reason is of course that history is no longer to be regarded as transparent — stories, facts and dates to be learned like the multiplication table or spelling rules. The facts are now thought to be subsidiary to the true story, knowledge of which requires a certain interpretive subtlety on the part of the student. “History” now consists, according to the Common Core, of the skills necessary for the extraction of this hidden truth from the welter of mere facts.

I don’t suppose I need to explain the political import of this hidden truth, but a recent story on NPR’s “Morning Edition” will explain it better than I could anyway. In order to illustrate the Common Core in action, the reporter, Charlotte Albright, took us into a class of 8th graders from Vermont who were being drilled in what she laughably called “close reading” of two texts — one about German science under the Nazis and the other the fable of the blind man and the elephant. From these, the children were expected to draw the simple conclusion that Nazis were Social Darwinists who had misread Darwin.  The children were much too young to understand the gross oversimplification of that equation or, indeed, anything but a caricature version of either Social Darwinism or Naziism, but they were all bright enough to see that this newly minted historical fact was the right answer to their teacher’s questions, which they then imagined they had discovered for themselves with the help of her two “texts.”

As it happened, a few days later I heard a reporter on another show on my local NPR station solemnly inform his audience that, “In the Victorian period, Social Darwinism reigned supreme.” Some children in Vermont, pleased with their new historical knowledge, must have thus discovered that the Victorians were Nazis. They had no way of knowing that the reporter himself knew nothing whatsoever about the Victorian period. Less than nothing, indeed, since the one thing he did know, or thought he knew, was wrong. Yet he, one supposes, is the ideal product of the politicized historical education proposed for all children who fall into the Common Core’s sausage machine. Already, for lots of people, the only thing worth knowing about the Victorians is how they can be slotted into the progressive fable of a centuries’ long process of gradual enlightenment culminating in those master-works of history, Barack Obama and Harry Reid.  That’s what history is for, and anything which does not fit — like the rich history of Victorian social and political thought — becomes suddenly unhistorical and irrelevant.

Thinking itself is thus rendered impossible, outside the very narrow channels prepared for it by the politically engineered Common Core. The NPR reporter was talking about what he described as the new academic discipline of “cooperation studies” — no doubt another triumph of progressive education but an utterly nonsensical subject to anyone without that education. Its  nonsense is disguised from us, however, by the apparent contrast with that mythical intellectual milieu of Social Darwinism, bequeathed to us by the Nazi Victorians. Just as their education presumably consisted of lessons in how to ensure their own survival by doing down their neighbors, so in these more enlightened times we can look forward to the young ones’ diligent application to the study of cooperation and comity. Even without the Common Core standards to back them up, I’m afraid all too many history teachers will approach their subject in a similar way. Clearly, whoever taught that NPR reporter did.

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Colby College sacks the stacks

by Jordan Graff

Posted: Apr 17, 2014 02:19 PM

Miller Library at Colby College | via

At Colby College, students and professors are protesting the school’s decision to remove 170,000 books from the campus library.  The books, which are being shipped to an off-campus storage facility, were removed as part of a two-phase renovation of Colby’s Miller Library.  The renovation, which cost the school $8.7 million, was designed to create more space in the library—the school claims it will add 150 seats—as well as to reflect the increasingly digitized nature of the library’s resources.  Some students and professors, however, are unhappy that their library’s on-campus collection is now smaller by 170,000 books.  A group of professors submitted three different petitions protesting the removal and a student-led petition has received seventy-six signatures.  Speaking for the opposition, Rob Weisbrot, a history professor at Colby, said, “While we laud the impressive advances in digitizing resources, these should supplement, not substitute, for keeping physical texts in the main library building.”  As it stands, Colby has removed nearly half of its collection from the main library building, leaving the students and faculty with a facility that, to quote Colby’s student newspaper, more closely resembles an “airplane hanger than a library.” 

The renovation of Miller Library is reminiscent of the renovation plans for the New York Public Library, announced in 2008 as the “Central Library Plan.” At the core of the plan is the proposal to dismantle the seven stories of book stacks that now sit beneath the main reading room and to place the three million volumes they currently hold in storage.  Under the initial proposal, 1.3 million of those volumes were to be held in an offsite facility near Princeton, but public backlash has ensured that the majority of the books will, if the plan is implemented, be housed under Bryant Park near the library. 

In the December issue of The New Criterion, Michael J. Lewis wrote about the Central Library Plan, or CLP as he called it.  “In the breathless and upbeat public relations campaign on behalf of the CLP,” Lewis wrote, “everything is presented as an augmentation or enhancement of what the library already is and does.  It is not stated, even obliquely or winkingly, that it represents a fundamental rethinking of what a library is.” Lying behind the decision to remove books from libraries, Lewis notes, is the tacit assumption that the digital revolution has made actual books obsolete.  If things can be accessed digitally, the argument seems to go, then there is no need to waste so much valuable space on books.  This assumption, as Lewis explains, is incredibly shortsighted:  A research library is only as good as the sum of its parts.  As Lewis explained, “a library with four million books at hand is considerably more than twice as good as one with two million.”  In the case of Colby College, a library with 170,000 fewer books is significantly worse off than it was before.

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In the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil sang of "arms and a man" (Arma virumque cano). Month in and month out, The New Criterion expounds with great clarity and wit on the art, culture, and political controversies of our times. With postings of reviews, essays, links, recs, and news, Armavirumque seeks to continue this mission in accordance with the timetable of the digital age.


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